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When I was about 15 years old, I thought owning a camel would be the coolest thing ever. Oh, the sensation we would cause, riding in the local parades! I had a Jersey dairy cow at the time, but even in my wildest dreams, milking a camel didn’t cross my mind. Now, decades later, after learning more about these large, odd beasts and the possibilities of their milk, I almost want to own one again.
Trekking Through the Sands of Time
Camels have served mankind for the past 4,000 years, providing meat, milk, hides, and reliable transportation. All members of the Camelidae trace their ancestors to the North American continent. From there, they migrated to South America, where they exist today (sometimes called “New World camels”) as llamas, vicunas, guanaco, and alpacas. They also migrated north, across the Bering land bridge, to Asia, and eventually clear to the tip of Africa. About 11,000 years ago, they became extinct in North America. In Eurasia, however, their descendants adapted, thrived, and became the camels we know today. In Asia, two species emerged: Camelus bactrianus, the short-legged, two-humped Bactrian, or Asian camel; and Camelus ferus, the critically endangered wild Bactrian. In northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, the taller, leggier, one-humped dromedary, or Arabian camel, Camelus dromedarius, evolved. Although feral populations of camels exist in some parts of the world, the only truly wild camel is the Bactrian.
Both the Bactrian, who favors cooler climates, and the dromedary, who thrives in desert and semiarid conditions, are remarkably thrifty creatures. In fact, everything about their physiology is designed to optimize the consumption and conservation of water and feed. The camel is a long-haul, low-maintenance, survival machine that can thrive in even the worst conditions. Camels are well equipped for these tough situations, with a hump that stores high-energy fat; an internal thermostat that can regulate the animal’s temperature throughout the day; kidneys and a colon that modulate water loss; red blood cells that don’t rupture when mass quantities of water are consumed in a short time; thick lips and gums that allow thorny, otherwise inedible plants to be consumed; and more. The camel’s ability to survive in dire conditions makes it an intriguing livestock option for the parts of the world already feeling the long-term effects of climate change.
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Treasure from a Foreign Land
Precise, reliable information on the nutrient content of camel’s milk is completely dependent on the camel species and, even more importantly, how the animal is cared for. In a fascinating paradox, the more feed and water a camel consumes, the less moisture its milk contains! For example, a camel with a nursing calf on a long trek across the desert will have higher water content in its milk than it would if it were back at the village eating and drinking regularly. It’s believed (and it certainly makes sense) that this is simply to ensure that calves stay well hydrated under severe conditions. Humans trekking alongside or on top of camels on long, thirsty trips have reaped the benefits of this paradox for centuries. When the water content increases in the milk, other components, such as protein, fat, lactose, and minerals, decrease. Thus, camel’s milk collected during these conditions has very low lactose content — about half that of cow’s milk — in addition to the other components. But, under good feeding conditions, these components increase to normal levels, and are comparable to cow’s milk.
It’s well documented that camel’s milk does have a higher vitamin C content than the milk of other mammals. In cow’s and goat’s milk, a bit of this essential vitamin is usually produced for a while after the animal has its babies, but then the amount drops to almost nothing. Camel’s milk is also a good source of iron and some of the B vitamins. The fat globule size is quite small, making it easier to digest than cow’s milk. While milk has several types of protein — any of which can be an allergen — camel milk has much lower levels of casein proteins, making it promising for those allergic to cow’s milk (which is the third most common allergen for humans). Depending on whether the milk is raw or pasteurized, the vitamin content will vary, as some vitamins, such as vitamin C, are destroyed by heat.
Photo from Adobe Stock/Reimar Gaertner
Traditionally, and now anecdotally, camel’s milk is believed to have therapeutic properties and is used to treat metabolic and autoimmune disease, autism, diabetes, tuberculosis, and several other conditions. As the usage of camel’s milk grows, perhaps more studies will be done to quantify its benefits.
The flavor of camel’s milk is described as mild and not too unlike cow’s milk. It has an element of saltiness that may be related to specific plants camels consume. However, salt intake is also utilized by the camel to a greater degree than other dairy animals: they use it as a part of their water-regulating mechanism. I’ve not had the pleasure of trying camel’s milk; it’s a bit hard to source here in North America, although there are several dairies across the continent. Milk — fresh, frozen, and dried — can be ordered from Desert Farms for about $18 per pint (with a minimum order of 6 pints). Camilk, an Australian company with farms in several parts of the world, sells a variety of camel’s milk products as well.
Traditional Camel’s Milk Ferments
The milk from these stalwart, expressive creatures has been used, both fresh and fermented, for centuries. Traditionally, camel’s milk ferments are most akin to kefir, buttermilk, and koumiss (a traditional mare’s milk ferment). In other words, camel’s milk ferments are drinkable, tangy, often bubbly, and slightly alcoholic. Making cheeses from camel’s milk is less common, both traditionally and currently. This is partially due to the type and amount of protein in camel’s milk, which makes it better suited to making soft and liquid ferments, such as yogurt, rather than firm cheeses that rely on the added enzyme rennet to create the solid curd. In addition, given the nomadic lifestyle of camel herders, and the fact that thirst-quenching foods are more sustaining in the heat of the deserts and the cold, arid steppes where camels thrive, this makes perfect sense.
There is scant information online and in books in the Western world about the exact nature of traditional camel’s milk ferments. The existing research indicates a microbial spectrum more similar to traditional kefir than grains and other wild, spontaneous milk ferments, where many microbes, including bacteria, yeasts, and molds, are present. With increasing interest in camel’s milk, fermented versions are growing in popularity, particularly in Asia and Africa, and are now even found on supermarket shelves.
In Central Asia, not far from the birthplace of kefir grains and yogurt, chal, or shubat, is a popular, nutritious camel’s milk ferment found in restaurants and stores. Known as chal in Turkmenistan and shubat in Kazakhstan, the thin ferment is advertised as a health food, with probiotics, immune support potential, and vitamins and minerals, much the same as yogurt is here in the United States. It’s often described as fizzy with a tangy flavor.
Photo from Food Perestroika
Gariss, a Sudanese camel’s milk ferment, has a tart pH that ranges from 3.4 to 3.7, about the same as orange juice or a lime soda, but without the sugar to balance it. Gariss has been formally documented to contain a wide spectrum of lactic acid bacteria, many of which are probiotic. Indeed, even raw camel’s milk collected for research was shown to contain pathogen-inhibiting microbes, specifically Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli.
Farther south on the African continent, the Maasai tribe of Kenya and northern Tanzania make kule naoto, which is fermented in a gourd whose dried inside has been smoked with acacia wood. Suusac is another Kenyan camel’s milk ferment that has high numbers of lactic acid bacteria and yeasts.
In Inner Mongolia, where the sturdy Bactrian camel is milked, hogormag is made by the nomadic peoples. As with the other traditional camel’s milk ferments, wild fermentation is relied upon with a resulting broad spectrum of beneficial microbes present in the final product.
If you want to try fermenting camel’s milk, I suggest using kefir culture or kefir grains and following the same steps as when making a cow’s or goat’s milk ferment.
If you get the chance to visit a camel farm, or even if you see one at a zoo or wildlife park, think of its contributions to humankind and observe the intelligence and adaptability in its wise eyes. Old World camels have no natural predators, so they look at us through a different set of eyes, perhaps even as equals. On that note, you don’t have to worry about one spitting on you — unless, of course, you deserve it.